Music icon Madonna gave remarks at Saturday’s Women’s March, where she told a sprawling crowd she had thought about blowing up the White House.
“Yes, I’m angry,” the Michigan-born entertainer said. “Yes, I am outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that this won’t change anything. We cannot fall into despair.”
The remark promptly solicited criticism in social media and from the administration. “This is destructive,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told ABC’s “This Week.” “I read in an article or two that the Secret Service may be investigating that.”
Though Madonna’s comments may give offense, they are almost certainly constitutionally protected. As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explains, there are obvious differences between references to violence and actual threats, even with respect to the president. The phrase “blowing up the White House” is clearly inflammatory, but it is only a serious, and therefore actionable, threat depending on the context and the intention of the speaker.
The Supreme Court said as much in U.S. v. Watts, where the justices vacated the conviction of a draftee who threatened the life of President Lyndon Johnson. (RELATED: Supreme Court Appears Ready To Strike Down Ban On Offensive Trademarks)
“If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights in LBJ,” he said.
Like Madonna’s claim, the gravity of Watts’ statement is contingent upon his willingness to carry out the “threat.” If it is a statement of his intentions, it is unlawful. If it is hyperbolic political rhetoric meant to express dissent, it is constitutionally protected speech. In a per curiam opinion vacating the conviction, the Court writes:
We do not believe that the kind of political hyperbole indulged in by petitioner fits within that statutory term. For we must interpret the language Congress chose ‘against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.'”
“The language of the political arena, like the language used in labor disputes, is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact. We agree with petitioner that his only offense here was “a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.” Taken in context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, we do not see how it could be interpreted otherwise.”
What’s more, it seems Madonna implicitly rebukes the notion of blowing up the White House as she continues her remarks. Her statement “But I know this won’t change anything,” seems to suggest such an attack would be a useless and therefore inadvisable course of action. And her appeal for the crowd to resort to other forms of activism would appear to corroborate that reading of her statement.
Threatening to blow up the White House is nutty as a rhetorical strategy, but it’s almost certainly lawful.
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